Presidents are the curse of American history. Or to be more precise, our interpretation of American history is bedeviled by the excessive focus on the role of the president, his character and personality. Not long ago, PBS’s “American Experience” repeated its major series on Ronald Reagan, which used a biography of Reagan as a means of understanding not just the shape of American politics, but also of American society in the 1980s. Recent books tell us how Reagan ‘invented the 1980s,’ creating ‘Reagan’s America.’ In much the same way, contemporary political discussions are dominated by the name and personality of George W. Bush: Bush created this mess (or, according to taste, Bush has saved us); Bush is destroying (or preserving) individual rights. The Bush Era of profligacy is contrasted with The Clinton Years, when a president brought fiscal sanity. And how very different things would have been if Al Gore had won in 2000…
To understand why we should not give such overwhelming weight to presidential action, we need to see how other individuals might have acted, had they been in the same position at the time. That means imagining counter-factual scenarios, a technique that many historians find dubious. But used cautiously, the device is very useful. Suppose, for example, we are looking at the Reagan Era, which was marked by a restoration of national pride and military prowess, a return to national prosperity, and a rejection of the moral excesses of the 1970s. A ferocious war on drugs symbolized the repudiation of the Sixties and everything represented by that term. Who could deny that the fortieth president wrought mighty works on a troubled nation? The Carter Era was one thing, Reagan’s America a completely different animal.
But just how different would the United States have been if Jimmy Carter had won the 1980 election? And that could have happened quite easily, if matters had worked out even slightly differently, especially with the Americans held hostage in Iran. Re-elected in 1980, Jimmy Carter would have faced the new Cold War already detonated by the Afghanistan crisis. Other areas of confrontation in the early 1980s would certainly include Poland and Central America, while the US would have to respond to recent Soviet missile deployments in Europe. It would have been natural for any US administration to try and weaken the Soviet bloc through proxy forces, who would receive clandestine support or training from the US. Well before the 1980 election, Carter began US support for Afghan mujaheddin guerrillas, and in the last days of his presidency, he restored military aid to the regime in El Salvador. From the start of 1980 – that is, under Carter – we discern the stark anti-Communist mood of the Reagan years, the renewed patriotic upsurge, and the quest for decisive leadership.
Many characteristic trends and symbols of the “Reagan eighties” originated in the Carter era: America was simply becoming more socially conservative in these years. The drug war, most famously directed against cocaine and crack cocaine under Reagan, originated in the anti-PCP (“angel dust”) panic of 1977-78, and was in full flood by the early 1980s. Already under Carter, American society was becoming much more penally oriented, with the dramatic upsurge of incarceration rates, and the restoration of capital punishment. Fears of rape and child sexual abuse, which so reshaped attitudes towards gender and sexuality, again originated in the late 1970s. Even the AIDS crisis, so often cited as the symbolic end of the sexual revolution, was closely prefigured by the herpes panic of 1980-82. Of course herpes was nothing like so lethal in its effects as AIDS, but looking back at the herpes literature now, we must be struck by how precisely it pioneers the rhetoric of the AIDS years, with the language of epidemic, plague, and scarlet letters. Reagan succeeded so thoroughly because he inherited a country alarmed by the extent of recent social revolutions, and only seeking an opportunity to be “scared straight”.
Reagan era prosperity was also rooted in earlier years. It was in late 1979 that Fed chairman Paul Volcker imposed the credit crunch that created the ghastly economic downturn of 1980-82. But the Fed policy eventually worked, so that the economy returned to boom conditions from late 1982, and began eight years of splendid success. As a lagniappe, oil prices conveniently crashed in mid-decade, reinforcing the US recovery, while further crippling the Soviet Union. If Jimmy Carter had still been president in 1983-84, he too would have enjoyed a sunny national mood, as the US basked in historic prosperity. Under whichever party, a confident and wealthy US would have been far more willing to confront its overseas enemies, while suppressing criminals and social deviants at home. Had he weathered the storms of 1980, then perhaps Carter would today be enjoying the credit for national salvation that actually adhered to Reagan.
Let us take another counter-factual that is absolutely relevant to present conditions. Assume that Al Gore had won Florida – and the presidency – in 2000. How different would the Gore Era have been from the political world in which we presently live? We know that he could have made little progress with his environmental goals: the US Senate had already declared the Kyoto treaty on global emission control dead on arrival. But imagine the Gore White House after September 11, 2001, with an outraged public prepared to believe every charge that the Republican Right assuredly would have made about national weakness, emasculation, even betrayal. A military already unhappy with Clinton-era defense policies would have been overt in its criticisms of the administration, and mass disaffection would have been a real prospect.
To pre-empt such an assault – to avert impeachment – President Gore would have had no option but to resort to military force, immediately in Afghanistan and, very likely in Iraq. (In 1998, Gore had been outspoken within the Clinton administration in calling for decisive action against Saddam Hussein). Given the likely political alignment, he could not have appeared less than firm. For the same reason, calls for action against terrorism would assuredly have meant giving additional powers to the intelligence agencies. It is difficult to imagine any president in 2001-2002 who would not have relaxed rules against robust interrogation, against kidnapping and rendition, and above all, who would have maintained legal restrictions on electronic surveillance. Conceivably, the vulnerability of a Democratic administration would have made a Gore presidency still more pro-active and militaristic than George W. Bush has been in practice.
Of course, presidents matter, chiefly because they make critical decisions about war and peace, and few would argue that the twentieth century presidency became steadily more imperial in nature. But over the past few decades, the obsession with presidential leadership has moved beyond the use of individuals as convenient symbols for historical eras, to imply that dominant personalities mold politics, regardless of wider social and economic forces, without considering the nature of federal power. And this tendency distorts our present-day politics, when observers obstinately attribute political actions to the personal whim of a leader, and his narrow band of advisers. That is the thought-world of royal absolutism and court-politics, not of an advanced constitutional democracy.
Philip Jenkins is the author of Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America.